Winter Soldiers’ Testimony

Former U.S. Marine Corps machine gunner John Michael Turner leaned over the microphone, his voice choking with emotion, the words barely forcing themselves out, the tears barely held back.

“There’s a term ‘Once a Marine, always a Marine,’” he said, ripping off his medals and throwing them to the ground. “But there’s also the expression ‘Eat the apple, f*@ the Corps, I don’t work for you no more.”

Turner was one of more than 200 veterans who came the Winter Soldier hearings organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). Like the other veterans assembled, Turner spoke openly about what he saw and did during his tours in Iraq.

“April 18, 2006 was the date of my first confirmed kill,” he said. “He was innocent, I called him the fat man. He was walking back to his house and I killed him in front of his father and friend. My first shot made him scream and look into my eyes, so I looked at my friend and said, ‘Well, I can’t let that happen,’ and shot him again. After my first kill I was congratulated.”

Not Just Bad Apples

When he was done speaking, Turner received a standing ovation from the crowd of Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and Gulf War veterans. The ovation went on for over two minutes. Turner’s comments, and the response was typical of the three day gathering, which Iraq Veterans Against the War hoped would show that well-publicized incidents of U.S. brutality, including the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the massacre of an entire family of Iraqis in the town of Haditha, are not isolated incidents perpetrated by “a few bad apples,” as many politicians and military leaders have claimed. They are part of a pattern, the organizers said, of “an increasingly bloody occupation.”

Corporal Jason Washburn did three tours in Iraq including the invasion. Over the course of his service, Washburn was stationed in some of the most dangerous areas of Iraq: Najaf, Sadr City, and Anbar Province. A squad in his unit was responsible for the massacre of 26 civilians in Haditha in November 2005.

Washburn told the gathering his commanders encouraged lawless behavior.

“We were encouraged to bring ‘drop weapons’ or shovels, in case we accidentally shot a civilian, we could drop the weapon on the body and pretend they were an insurgent,” he said.

“By the third tour, if they were carrying a shovel or bag, we could shoot them. So we carried these tools and weapons in our vehicles, so we could toss them on civilians when we shot them. This was commonly encouraged.”

Meager Media Coverage

These gripping, often tearful personal testimonies were broadcast in their entirety through IVAW’s website, the satellite statio Free Speech TV, and Pacifica Radio (who’s three- day live broadcast I co-hosted) but they mostly went ignored by the mainstream media.

These grassroots outlets reached a much larger audience than organizers expected. IVAW’s website received more than 30,000 unique views every day during Winter Soldier. Warcomeshome.org, the site I edit for Pacifica Radio, received hits from internet users in over 110 countries and moving comments from veterans and active duty service members and their families. The progressive print and online media also paid attention: articles ran in In These Times, The Nation and AlterNet.

Winter soldier also received wide play in the military press, with favorable stories published in Stars and Stripes and the Military Times chain of newsweeklies. The IVAW has posted media coverage of the hearings on its site.

Success in alternative and military outlets was tempered, however, by a nearly complete blackout by the mainstream media. Though the gathering was timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and was held in Silver Spring, Maryland less than 10 miles from the White House, the personal testimony of hundreds of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans garnered scant mainstream media coverage, with the notable exceptions of Time, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, the Boston Globe and The Washington Post, which buried an article on Winter Soldier in the Metro section. Meanwhile, The New York Times¸ CNN, ABC, NBC, and CBS ignored it completely.

Instead, these media outlets proffered stories produced by embedded journalists citing “progress” in Iraq, supposedly thanks to the so-called “surge.” The contrast between the raw, honest words of these veterans and the coverage on TV was incredibly jarring.

Waking up at my suburban Washington hotel Sunday morning, I turned on Good Morning America, and saw a live shot from “Camp Victory” (formerly Saddam Hussein International Airport) where the reporter excitedly reported “more troops is just one reason for the drop in violence.”

No mention was made of the 4,4783 Americans who’ve been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the one million Iraqis researches at Columbia University and Johns Hopkins University believe have died. No mention, either, of more than 69,000 American soldiers the Pentagon reports have been wounded, injured, or fallen ill in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There was also no mention of the nearly 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who have gone to the Department of Veterans Affairs for treatment; nor of the 250,000 who have filed a disability claim with the VA.

Five years into the war, we appear to be back where we started in terms of media coverage, where a cowed media blindly follows the spin coming from the White House. After Winter Soldier concluded, the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting released an alert to its members asking them to “contact the broadcast networks and ask them why they decided to ignore the Winter Soldiers hearings while carrying the less-informed observations on Iraq of John McCain and Dick Cheney.”

Troubling Polling Data

It’s not surprising then that when asked by the Pew Research Center earlier this month, only 28% of respondents correctly said that about 4,000 Americans have died in the war. Most thought the number was closer to 2,000 or 3,000.

According to the same survey, overall media coverage of the war dropped from an average of 15% of stories in July 2007, to just 3% in February 2008.

At Winter Soldier, veterans I spoke to found these developments upsetting, but not discouraging. They note that when Vietnam veterans held a similar forum on war crimes in 1971 it was also roundly ignored by the mainstream press. But that did not cause the story to go away, because word got out through military and veteran circles got out that resistance within the ranks was building – a development most members of Iraq Veterans Against the War see as even more important than mainstream media coverage and lobbying on Capitol Hill.

“We don’t need to rely on the mainstream media,” said Aaron Hughes, a former Illinois National Guardsman who drove convoys in Iraq. “We can rely on the grassroots networks that we’re building through events like Winter Soldier. People are posting on blogs and organizing in their workplaces and in their schools. That’s what’s important.”

Hughes and other members of Iraq Veterans Against the War were also excited to see the extensive coverage they were given by military papers like Stars and Stripes and the Army Times. IVAW also bought advertisements in both papers in advance of the event with an eye to boosting their membership and increasing the amount of opposition to the war within the U.S. military.

Changing the Whole Nation

“That’s getting to the veterans and GIs who oppose this war but may feel like they’re alone,” he said. “As long as we keep building that it doesn’t matter if the mainstream media is covering this or not because we’re going to change this whole nation but what we are doing.”

Already 30 Iraq and Afghanistan have contacted IVAW since the Winter Soldier gathering began on March 13 and hundreds of other veterans who were already members of the organization have stepped forward offering to add their testimony to those who testified in Silver Spring.

“This time we came with 200 veterans,” Hughes said. “The next time we’ll come with 400 veterans and then 800. We will not let up until this occupation is over.”

Independent journalist Aaron Glantz, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, has reported extensively from Iraq throughout the U.S. occupation. He is author of How America Lost Iraq (Penguin). He co-hosted the Pacifica radio broadcast of the Winter Soldier hearings, along with veteran Aimee Allison. Full archives of Winter Soldier are available at warcomeshome.org and ivaw.org.